Them: The Failure of the Blame Mindset in Financial Improvement

Before I started The Simple Dollar, I started a few other websites on different topics that I was passionate about at the time. I had a Magic: the Gathering website. I had a parenting website. I had a “how to learn data mining from scratch” website.

I had big dreams about these websites being huge successes. I invested what seemed like a lot of time into building these sites and creating great content.

Yet, for some reason, they didn’t take off. The parenting site did just a little bit and the data mining site became a bit popular a year or two after I stopped working on it (strange, I know), but none of them had any level of success.

My reaction at the time was to start throwing out blame.

I blamed big media companies for already starting popular sites that were hogging the audience in those genres.

I blamed Google for not sending people to my site in the search results.

I blamed my website host for various technical issues.

I blamed and blamed and blamed, and I failed and failed and failed.

In fact, I had basically given up on websites being successful and I started The Simple Dollar as a way to indirectly share financial tips with some friends.

What should I have done instead?

I should have asked how exactly independent sites became successful. What exactly were other independent small sites doing that I wasn’t?

I should have been more patient and given it more time and more sweat equity.

I should have worked harder to share my site with more real people rather than hoping that “Google magic” would make it popular.

More than anything, though, I shouldn’t have wasted my time and energy blaming other people, organizations, and larger events outside of my control for the failures.

Undoubtedly, some of those things made my path more difficult. On occasion, it might have even been intentional that they were making my path more difficult (usually, it’s without intention, as people are chasing their own goals and are trying to be the first to get to a resource). No matter the case, even if it was done with intent to keep me from succeeding, spending my energy blaming them is a waste of time because it excuses my own poor behavior.

That’s the real key here, so let me repeat it: when you fail at something (or don’t even try) and blame others for that failure, it’s nothing more than an excuse for your own poor behavior. It’s an excuse for you to not have to put out effort, because you’ll always have that convenient “them” to point at as the convenient “reason” for your failure.

Never mind the fact that people are constantly overcoming setbacks and obstacles and resistance from others to succeed at very similar goals to your own. You can just blame “them.” You can just complain how they stood in your way, how they ripped you off, how success is impossible with such insurmountable things in the way.

Every single bit of that is an excuse so that you don’t have to put forth the effort needed to actually succeed, because most success requires a lot of effort and a lot of missteps before it happens.

In reality, failure in most things comes down to one of a very small handful of explanations.

One, you simply didn’t execute on what you needed to execute. You didn’t put in the time, effort, and energy needed to actually succeed, and thus you didn’t succeed.

Two, you were facing competition in a competitive environment and your own skills, connections, efforts, and talents weren’t up to theirs. They put in more work, built more and better connections, and had more talents on display than you did, thus you didn’t succeed.

Three, unexpected setbacks completely outside of your control caused the derailment of your plan. That’s part of life. Sometimes unexpected events happen. They happen to everyone. Sometimes they can be planned for and anticipated to an extent; other times, they really can’t be. Often, when those setbacks are caused by other people, they’re caused by people chasing their own ambitions, not people trying to disrupt you, and fall more into the “competition” category. You’re often not really on their radar as anything more than a speed bump to their goals.

Almost every failure falls into at least one of those three categories, and none of them merit playing the blame game. Instead, all three merit looking at what went wrong, correcting it, and giving it another shot.

Let’s look at each of these three kinds of failure in terms of financial improvement.

Failure to Execute

This first type of failure crops up all the time in self-improvement goals. It simply refers to situations where you know what it is that you should do, but you simply didn’t do it. Maybe you came up with an unrealistic plan from the start, or maybe the plan was realistic and you just decided not to follow through with it. Whatever the case, you didn’t execute when you needed to do so because of your own choice and/or lack of effort.

In this situation, it is very tempting to fall into a downward spiral of blaming yourself. I’m a failure. I have no willpower. I have no self control.

In truth, failure to execute is often the result of a poor plan that you didn’t revise with the feedback from your own results along the way. Many people are taught that once you come up with a goal and a plan for achieving that goal, it shouldn’t be touched at all, or else they try to achieve a goal with little or no planning whatsoever.

It’s not a sign of some sort of grand personal failure. I’ve done it many times. Rather, it’s just a lack of understanding what it takes to define an achievable goal, plan sensibly for that goal, and modify it along the way as you begin to see results and rough spots.

Don’t blame yourself. Don’t call yourself a failure. You’re not. You just have a goal and a plan in need of revision. It’s like saying a writer is a failure because their first (or second or third) draft isn’t perfect.

A great example of this is a spending or budgeting goal. Many people fall into the trap of setting a very aggressive budget with a lot of money left over for debt repayment or saving for the future, only to find themselves falling short of achieving that budget because of a few spending missteps or an unexpected expense.

Does that mean that the person creating the budget is a failure? No. Does that mean that the budget is a failure? No. Does that mean that the goal is impossible? No.

It means that the budget needs revision. You now have more data that reveals that your original budget was perhaps too optimistic, and now you have data with which to develop a more realistic budget that’s still optimistic but within the reality of your life.

Don’t take a failed first (or second or third) stab at a budget as evidence that you’re a failure or that a budget is a failure. It’s not. I constantly fail at my first attempt at most kinds of self-improvement. I fail at second and third attempts, too. Yet, eventually, I often find success.

Recall that story at the start of this article. I made countless attempts at being a successful online writer, and I failed many times before I figured out how to make it work. That doesn’t make me a failure; it’s just the nature of any sufficiently challenging goal you set for yourself. If I viewed myself as a failure, I would have never kept trying and thus The Simple Dollar wouldn’t exist and I would be working in another field entirely.

This is all true of any goal that requires you to make personal changes in order to succeed. Sometimes, your goal is too aggressive and requires an unrealistic plan. Sometimes the plan for achieving that goal is unrealistic, or it doesn’t take into account some realities that you didn’t think about when you were first coming up with the plan. You probably won’t succeed at your first attempt, but that lack of success does not mean you’re a failure. It does not mean that you deserve blame. It does not mean that your weaknesses will keep you from ever succeeding.

All it means is that you need to take what you learned from this initial failure and use it to make a revised goal with a revised plan. That revised plan is somewhat more likely to succeed, but it’s still not a guarantee.

Blaming yourself and using that blame as a reason to give up is the only real mistake you can make here. Everything else is a step toward coming up with a plan that really works for you.


Many goals don’t exist entirely within a self-improvement bubble. Many goals, particularly professional and entrepreneurial and social goals, intimately involve other people who are often aiming for the same thing you are, and that will often create competition.

The competition you inevitably face with other people comes down to two types. In one type, there really is a limited number of spots. For example, if your goal is to play in the NBA, there are only about 450 spots for players in the league at any given time and millions of players who want those spots. They’re truly limited.

However, the more common type of competition is much less direct. It’s one where quality work increases the size of the pie for everyone and there’s room for everyone. This is true for many fields, ones that can grow as long as there are more skilled and talented people in the pool. There is always room for another good writer. There is always room for another good computer programmer.

In the first case, failure to achieve your goal of obtaining one of a limited number of spots doesn’t mean that all of your efforts are a waste. It just means that you need to figure out another goal that utilizes the skills you’re building up.

So, for example, the person who is aiming to play in the NBA might build a skill set that enables them to play in an overseas basketball league.

Another approach is to build up a pool of skills that can be used together to forge an adjacent career path. For example, that basketball player might add sports management to their resume and become an agent or a front office executive, or they might add communication skills and teaching to the mix and become a coach, or they might take video editing or audio editing skills and get involved in sports-related video or audio production.

In the second case, it’s not an available spot that’s the concern but the essential level of skill needed to do this for a living. Often, failure in this area means that you simply need to hone your own skills more or else complement them with other skills as noted above and take a slightly different angle on the goal you’re shooting for.

Again, in both of these cases, it comes back to the actions you take above all else. The fact that other people want to achieve the things you want should be taken as a given, not as a source of blame. They’re always going to be doing their thing. What really matters is that you don’t use their expected efforts as an excuse not to work toward goals yourself.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some skills that are useful in most career paths. The ability to communicate well is always valuable, as is the ability to build relationships. Those can often be a difference maker, and they are skills anyone can work on.

If you want to be, say, a great software developer and make a lot of money at it, for example, the only thing really holding you back from that is your own efforts. You won’t succeed immediately, but it won’t be because the others you’re competing with are holding you back. You have to build your own skills up to the point that they’re quite valuable and supplement them with transferable skills like communication and networking skills. The effort to do that is up to you, and that leads back to the more self-directed goals above. You’re not a failure if you don’t succeed immediately, but if you rely on blaming your own perceived inadequacies and use that as a reason not to put forth effort, then you will fail.

Unexpected Setbacks

Almost every goal that anyone attempts in life will have some kind of unexpected setback. Something will come along to disrupt your plans and either slow you down or send you right back to the drawing board.

An illness. An injury. An unreliable partner. An unexpected job loss. A broken promise. A car that doesn’t start. It goes on and on and on.

Is it unfair? Sure. However, it shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. It’s going to happen. Anything worth accomplishing is impressive not just because of what it took to get from the start to the finish, but because the person overcame the inevitable unexpected setbacks along the way.

I recall my father saying more than once that “if you go get the mail during the hailstorm, you can’t expect to come back without a bump on the head.” There’s always a hailstorm, even if you can’t see it coming.

It’s easy to blame these unexpected setbacks for your failure, but what you should really be asking yourself is what can you do so that you can still succeed even in the face of these unexpected events.

For example, you might have a wonderful budget in place that’s just ticking along perfectly as you knock down your credit card and student loan debts, but then all of a sudden your mother gets ill and you’re spending every weekend traveling to help take care of her and it’s draining your progress toward that goal.

Could you blame this unexpected event from keeping you from ever reaching your goal? Sure, but blaming that unexpected event does absolutely nothing to help you achieve debt freedom. Instead, it’s merely time to sit down and rebuild your plan given the new situation you find yourself in.

You should also be aware that although you can’t control unexpected events, you can always control how you respond to them. Something bad might happen, but that doesn’t mean it has to spawn you to anger-driven behavior. It might spawn the feeling of anger inside of you, but you have the power to choose how to respond to that feeling. Is it just blameful destructive anger, or is it an emotional source to draw on for your next attempt?

Final Thoughts

It’s simple: blame doesn’t help you achieve any goals you might have for yourself. In fact, it’s just a self-destructive tendency that keeps you from achieving things.

A much better response is to sit down with your goal and your plan and look at what went wrong. This isn’t a failure or something to blame – everyone has goals and plans that go wrong. Take what you learned and make a better plan.

This might not work on the first attempt or the second or the third. Keep trying. Life changes. You change. Situations change. Unexpected events happen. Over time, your changes will get you closer and closer to where you want to be.

The only thing that holds you back is blame. When you decide that you can’t succeed because of some element and you use that as a poor reason to discontinue any effort toward your goal, that’s the moment when you ensure failure. There are always elements that make success difficult; otherwise, everyone would be successful. The difference between those that succeed and those that do not is whether they let blame get in the way of actually continuing to make progress toward their goals.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.